Among all the new advances in science and technology in the past decade, few have reached the levels of prominence or skepticism quite like additive manufacturing. Some see it as revolutionary. To others, it is over-hyped. Yet, as new techniques and approaches become accessible and desired economies-of-scale are realized, additive manufacturing does not appear to be going away any time soon. Its role is becoming more defined, and manufacturers, industry leaders, and even individual “makers” are exploring new and innovative uses for it.
While the future does appear bright for additive manufacturing, there are still significant hurdles that must be overcome. Foremost among these is accessing a wider range of materials. Some are too brittle for high-fidelity parts at scale, some are too toxic for widespread consumption, and some are too expensive.
At the core of this limited range of materials being used in additive manufacturing is a lack of understanding of the material science that gives these materials their properties. Making multiple physical prototypes extends the design cycle, can increase costs, and requires extra testing. As a result, many engineers and designers tend to limit themselves to a core group of materials that they understand well, confining their creativity and stifling the potential of their finished product.
However, there is a solution on the horizon that can push additive past its current “tipping point.” Imagine a design process where bespoke materials are tailored for their specific use.
How does this become possible? It comes from the advent of a new capability in materials and product design: multiscale modeling. The accuracy of today’s modeling and simulation software has evolved to the point that an integrated solution can enable designers to model a product from the atomic scale up to full size in silico. Scientists and engineers can visualize the molecular systems that give their materials their properties, gaining deeper understanding of how and why their materials work. They can manipulate the immediate environment, test different formulations or functional groups, and optimize desired properties without needing a single physical experiment.
With these material properties they can then design and optimize parts to meet more complex and specific design requirements. They can test different shapes, orientations and manufacturing methods to meet and go beyond current design limitations to create a new world of manufacturing.
These possibilities flip the traditional design-and-manufacturing paradigm on its head; where a designer limited the capabilities of his final part based on the constraints of the materials available, now a designer crafts a material to fit the desired parameters of his final part.
Couple this with other burgeoning technologies like additive manufacturing, and the possibilities grow exponentially. Single parts can be seamlessly made from multiple materials, or even gradients of materials. Runs can be optimized for any number of parameters: cost, mechanical strength, heat resistance or sustainability. Batches can be made to order, with little to no retooling or recalibrating of machinery.
In short, the world of manufacturing is on the verge of changing forever. And this vision is not as far off as it would appear. It is growing. It is coming.
Sean McGee is the product marketing manager for BIOVIA Dassault Systèmes.